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ISSUE 119 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/28/2005

Battle of the Titans

By Joel Stjernholm
Staff Writer

Friday, October 28, 2005

There have been a handful of truly critical games in St. Olaf football history, but few have been as momentus as this one.

The grounds crew at St. John’s University is preparing for a capacity crowd that may eclipse 15,000 spectators. Coaches and players at both St. Olaf and St. John’s have been diligently making preparations the entire week. Thousands of football fans across the Upper Midwest have blocked off their Saturday afternoon schedules in anticipation of the Oles’ most important game of the year, which will get underway at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Johns’ Clemens Stadium in Collegeville, Minn.

The winner of Saturday afternoon’s contest between the 8-0 Johnnies and the 7-0 Oles will be virtually guaranteed at least a share of the MIAC title and a berth in the NCAA Division III Central Regional. This is, for all intents and purposes, a championship game. And it promises to be close.

“This will be a four quarter game,” said defensive end James Bechdol ‘06. “In most of our games this year, I’ve only played three quarters [because the Oles have played in so many blowout victories], but this one will definitely be a four quarter game.”

St. Olaf, which defeated the Johnnies 19-17 at Manitou Field last season, has not won back-to-back games against St. John’s since 1984-1985, and the 2005 iteration of St. John’s appears much improved from last year’s 7-3 version. The Johnnies won against then-undefeated Concordia College two weeks ago and will be a challenge for the Oles.

Here is an in-depth look at how the matchup breaks down.

St. Olaf’s offense

Quarterback Jason Wilsey ’06 is arguably the best in the conference, even one of the best in the country, and both his skills and confidence have been apparent this season. Under Wilsey’s direction, the Ole offense has led the MIAC in scoring, passing yards, turnovers, pass efficiency, third down conversions and total offense.

Statistically, Wilsey is the single-most productive offensive player in the conference, accounting for over 272 yards per game.

“In my four years here as head coach, no one has sacrificed more to make himself and the program better than Wilsey,” head coach Chris Meidt said.

St. Olaf’s receiving corps is both the best and the youngest in the MIAC, boasting four receivers with game-breaking potential. Wide receivers Horace Gant ’08, Preston St. John ’08, Andrew Schmesing ’08 and Jeremy Lund ’07 have torched defenses all season long, and running back Jay Higgins ’08 has been Wilsey’s favorite target out of the backfield.

While this group boasts impressive statistics, its greatest strength is arguably its collective speed: Gant runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds and Schmesing in 4.4 seconds. Few offenses in Division III possess as many potentially game-breaking offensive threats.

Like the wide receivers, St. Olaf has several talented running backs who share responsibilities in the backfield. Higgins and Bobby Andrade ’07 share first-team responsibilities, but Wilsey, Marc Olson ’07, Chris Feehan ’07 and St. John all deserve credit for St. Olaf’s prowess on the ground. St. Olaf’s multi-faceted rushing attack has averaged 235 yards rushing per game (second in the MIAC), and leads the conference with an average of five yards per carry.

Though they have received little credit this season, St. Olaf’s offensive line is largely responsible for the team’s offensive success. Weighing in at an average of 285 pounds per man, the line has consistently cleared the way for the Ole ground attack and provided an impenetrable pocket of protection for Wilsey. The line has permitted only two sacks in seven games, nine better than second-best Concordia; that figure is even more impressive given St. Olaf’s pass-oriented offense.

Ole offense vs. St. John’s

If St. Olaf is the leviathan of MIAC offenses, St. John’s is their defensive counterpart. St. Olaf leads the conference in most offensive categories, but St. John’s leads the MIAC in scoring defense, passing defense, rushing defense and total defense.

While Wilsey has thrown the fewest interceptions of any MIAC quarterback, St. John’s has intercepted more passes than any other MIAC defense.

St. Olaf’s offensive line will have to play their best game of the season on Saturday. The Oles must establish both their running and passing games early, and to do so they must win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

Additionally, the Oles must take advantage of opportunities that arise from any Johnnie defense errors. Blown coverages and poor reads must translate into big plays for St. Olaf, which is something the team has done well for much of the season.

While the Johnnies are not the offensive juggernaut that St. Olaf is, they will make some plays on defense. The Oles must weather those shots, play to their strengths and stay disciplined.

St. Olaf’s defense

The Oles hope that their veteran-laden defense can slow down the Johnnies enough for their offense to take over. The unit, which finished fifth overall in the conference a year ago, currently sits fourth in total yards allowed.

Led by Bechdol, the St. Olaf defensive line has limited its opponents to only 105 rushing yards per game, virtually eliminating the ground threat.

St. Olaf’s linebackers have proved to be a versatile group, accruing 111.5 tackles among the starters. While that statistic may be a testament to their prowess against the run, they have also intercepted seven passes, proving that they are just as dangerous (or effective) in coverage. Team captain John Davis ’06 has played particularly well, earning 29 tackles, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.

Throughout this season, opponents have appeared hesitant to test the Ole secondary, and with good reason: Ole defensive backs have proved adept at shutting down the passing game, intercepting six passes and has defending 26 passes on the season.

“The secondary has really come along,” Meidt said. “Matt Dean [‘06] has played well; Pete St. Lawerence has really improved his play at safety as well. And Deonte [Hutchins ‘08] is a great cover corner.”

Ole Defense vs. St. John’s

The Oles have “gang tackled” well this year, and they can’t afford to ease up against the Johnnies. St. John’s boasts a big-play running back in Corey Weber (who has scored 13 touchdowns this season) and relies heavily upon its running game to move the ball. Physical play on the line and strong tackling by Ole linebackers should help to counter this threat.

“Defensively, our plan is to play our fast, aggressive style and to rely on our athleticism to create turnovers,” St. Lawerence said.

St. John’s also throws the deep pass frequently, which has proved to be extremely effective for them. The Johnnies will undoubtedly test St. Olaf’s secondary early and often, and the Oles will depend heavily on Dean and company to repel the air attack. If they are successful in this effort, it will be a good day for interceptions. The Ole defense must play with confidence and remain physical throughout the entire game.

The Bottom Line

Many MIAC observers and fans have picked St. John’s to win, citing home field advantage, dominating defensive play and the team’s storied championship tradition.

However, those prognosticators neglect several important facts. St. Olaf’s high-powered offense has been tested by tough defenses numerous times this season and has still piled up impressive numbers. Meidt is one of the finest offensive minds in the MIAC, if not in Division III football, and his inventive schemes should give the Johnnie defense fits.

Additionally, St. Olaf has the speed to run with St. John’s, which will be a key factor on the artificial turf of Clemens Stadium.

Saturday’s much-anticipated contest should be a close game, as both teams appear evenly matched. Having the home field advantage will give St. John’s a leg up, but fans shouldn’t bet against St. Olaf on game day.

The bottom line: My money is on St. Olaf to capture their first MIAC crown since 1979.

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